For Othello Hunter, the National Championship game was anything but a feint, distant memory. Today’s clash with the defending champion Florida Gators in Columbus does little to ease him of those painful moments.
Just two games after clinching a Final Four berth against Memphis in San Antonio, the Buckeyes’ dream season came crashing down in a flurry of confetti. To a team that humiliated them once already, no less.
“Confetti coming down,” Hunter said Friday on what he recalled about last season, “blue and orange.”
At 4 PM, the 6-8 senior will look to alleviate the frustration pent up from not one but two drubbings at the hands of the blue & orange Gators last season. First, the former JUCO transfer got his feet wet on the national stage being humiliated 86-60 in Gainesville. Some three months later, the Buckeyes surrendered an 84-75 defeat in Atlanta in the Championship game.
The first of two games against Florida last year was especially hard on Hunter, who failed to score in 16 minutes, had two turnovers and stepped across the end line when attempting to in-bound the ball.
“That game was crazy,” he said. “The crowd – I didn’t know they were going to be like that.
“At some point in the game,” he added, “I got nervous I guess I can say.”
Hunter is one of four returning players for Ohio State that endured those nerves. He, Jamar Butler, Matt Terwilliger and David Lighty all share the same memories.
The Gators provided more than an adequate supply of what amounted to very little heartache during the 2006-07 campaign for the Buckeyes. The Gators delivered two of only four losses in an otherwise stellar 35-4 season.
It has now been a marked game for the four, pointing to December 22.
“I have (circled it),” said point guard Butler.
But not so fast, said their head coach.
Thad Matta decided to get inspirational last week. The head coach, trying to piece together a formula for why his team already had three losses, began searching his own library for motivation. Finding a book that dealt with unrealistic expectations, Matta quoted his team excerpts.
His message was more important than the words themselves:
Don’t remember the Alamo.
The Final Four run, culminating in San Antonio; 22-game win streak; Big Ten Championship; school record 35 victories and everything in between – Matta wanted them removed from memory.
He wanted a new slate. Everything was to be wiped clean and this team was to deal with a new set of expectations, not the ones lingering from last year’s team, which had three future NBA first round draft picks.
“The only thing they know is what they saw last year and a team that wins 22 straight games and plays for the national championship and finishes the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country,” Matta said of his newest squad. “So there may have been some of that unbeknownst to me.”
Fully unaware to what extent he struck gold his words rang completely true to a group of unsuspecting basketball players.
Turns out, his team was still very much focused on last year’s success and comparing this year’s team.
“Oh yeah, (I think about it) all the time,” Hunter admitted.
“With the success we had last year, expectations were high coming into the season,” Butler added.
However, perhaps Matta’s motivational speech was fool’s gold, but may have done the trick anyhow.
“A lot of stress was relieved off us when coach had that talk,” noted Butler. “We know that this team isn’t last year’s team. We have different expectations this year and we have to have our own identity.”
“I was just like, ‘why are we losing so much?’” he said. “Coach told us to take the stress off and it helped because I was thinking about this year’s team, not last year’s team.”
With a new team come new faces. With new faces, inevitably, come new problems.
While Matta did his best Tony Bennett in motivational speaking, Hunter too apparently has a penchant for problem-solving. He disclosed Friday that a young teammate came to him several times over the course of the first six weeks dazed and confused.
“I’m really glad for Evan Turner,” Hunter said when asked about his progress. “I told him from the beginning, because he was talking about, ‘man, I should be starting that, I should be starting this,’ I just said, ‘you need to go show coach you can play.’ He finally started to make plays. He’s not just following the system, he’s making plays.”
The 6-4 freshman from Chicago has started the past three games for Ohio State. He’s averaging 5.6 points in 19 minutes per game, after taking over for fellow freshman Jon Diebler who was 9-of-49 from 3-point range before Tuesday’s 5-of-6 showing against Cleveland State. Matta says Turner’s promotion was earned in practice.
“It’s amazing to look at his shooting numbers in practice over the course of the last month and see how they’ve continuously risen,” he explained. “He’s more comfortable with what he’s trying to do.”
Whether Hunter had any direct involvement in inspiring Turner to take a hold of the starting position or not, it seems to have paid dividends for both the rookie and for Ohio State. In the three games since being named starter, Turner has responded by scoring 29 points and dishing out eight assists.
But just how did Hunter acquire the role of human resources manager?
“I guess they (the players) think I talk to coach or something,” he said, inciting laughter. “I tell coach how I feel sometimes and I guess they like that.”
Not everything Matta has done, however, has been looking completely ahead. The three opponents that have defeated Ohio State this year – Texas A&M, North Carolina and Butler have been used by Matta as learning tools.
“I know we’ve gone back and really drawn from those games and said, ‘hey, these are things we’ve got to get better on,” Matta added.
But this afternoon, when Matta looks across the floor at his coaching nemesis, Billy Donovan, he will do so hoping his team has cleared their minds of last year’s debacles.
All of that is ancient history, similar to Donovan’s flirtation with the Orlando Magic job.
“I wasn’t surprised he would be a hot commodity in the NBA,” Matta said on the topic of his confident Donovan flirting with the National Basketball Association before later reneging and returning to Gainesville. “I view him as a guy that would be an NBA-type coach…In the end, I know Billy pretty well and I could see where his heart would bring him back to Florida.”
In a quick second, the topic turned from Billy the Kid’s NBA aspirations, or lack thereof, to Matta’s.
But Matta had a quick draw of his own when asked whether he viewed himself as an NBA-type coach.
“I want to be an NBA player,” he corrected. “Once I get this back fixed and the nerves start firing: watch out.”
It’s probably the first (and last) time all year that Matta was caught dwelling on the past. As for his team, he’ll have none of that.
Not even a little harmless reminiscing of good old times, and for Hunter: some not so good times.